John Nathan

The comfort and connection of live theatre

Our theatre critic reflects on the productions that have meant the most to him

March 30, 2020 09:26

I am still adjusting. I do not mean to the lockdown, because for my partner Claire and I homeschooling our six-year-old daughter in the home of my 85-year-old mother, who is herself recovering from (a non Covid-19) illness, is never going to feel normal even if it becomes usual.

I mean adjusting to that published list of key workers, a role-call of society’s most important functions that between police and transport workers scandalously found no room for theatre critics.

I’m kidding. We always knew we could not be less vital.

Yet nothing better illustrates the essential role of theatre makers, if not reviewers, than isolation.

Theatre is an art born out of our species’ impulse to congregate whether it be at a camp fire, a stage or before a bimah. Now, for the first time, we can’t.

This isn’t quite a case of only knowing what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. It was clear early on during a life of theatre-going and then theatre reviewing that what happens on a stage can be a salve to the most troubled of times whether personal, national or global.

Theatre was there for us after 9/11. And with Tony Kushner’s Homebody Kabul, which was in rehearsal in New York when the twin towers were hit, it was even there before. The play contained the prophetic line “the Taliban are coming…”.

David Hare served the need for communal counselling after the Iraq War with Stuff Happens and then again with The Permanent Way after the Potters Bar train crash.

These are not necessarily the best of plays. But they did brilliantly what theatre has a way of doing as well if not better than anything — addressing a particular need at particular time.

The RSC’s 2006 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible wasn’t the best I ever saw — that would be Yael Farber’s 2014 production. But I saw it on the day I knew my marriage had failed.

Nothing in it reflected my life. But the power to transport me away from it was so therapeutic, I can still feel the sense of my fragmented life being put back together in a way that only happens by being given the kind of perspective that comes from being immersed in the lives of others.

This is the solace that results from being led from solitude, even if it is not the physical kind.

When, in 1999, Complicite’s Mnemonic made use of the discovery of Otzi the iceman, whose body had been perfectly preserved in a Tyrolean glacier even though he lived 5,000 years ago, the result was a profound understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness.

The opening moments of the show had the blindfolded audience trace the veins on a leaf that became a map of each individual’s family tree, all the way back to the beginning of our species. That stays with me, too, as does the first time I saw Sondheim’s Company, which is about living in a city and being single and was the first time a I realised a musical could be about my life..

Theatre did all that for me and in countless other ways did it for millions of others. And there is a good deal of comfort to be had in knowing that when we emerge from our isolation it will do it again.

March 30, 2020 09:26

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive